What to Do, and Not to Do, if Bitten by a Rattlesnake

Understanding the biology and behavior of rattlesnakes can go a long way in reducing unwanted encounters.
Prairie Rattlesnake
Prairie Rattlesnake. Photo by Wayne Lewis (CPW).

Colorado Parks and Wildlife is sharing safety information on rattlesnakes with the public for awareness in an instance a person, or even your dog, is bitten. The messaging comes after a tragic incident where a young child died following a bite from a rattlesnake near Colorado Springs.

To learn all about rattlesnakes, please listen to our informative podcast episode. Colorado Parks and Wildlife species conservation coordinator Tina Jackson has spent the last 20 years learning about snakes, and she shared her knowledge of rattlesnakes in this episode.

Why are people bitten and what is the result? 

Rattlesnakes are usually very gracious in terms of their defensive behavior. They have an elaborate defensive strategy that seeks to avoid the need for a venomous bite if at all possible. Unfortunately, and often because people choose to provoke a defensive snake or are unlucky enough to actually step on one, bites do occur. 

Though usually not fatal for a healthy adult, a bite is nevertheless very painful and it should always be taken seriously.

Rattlesnake venom is hemotoxic and results in the destruction of muscle and soft tissue around the site of the bite. In prey animals the venom acts not only to subdue, but also begins the process of digestion even before the snake swallows its prey. The same process is in effect when humans are bitten, and tissue damage can be extensive. In extreme cases, reconstructive surgery or even amputation of a finger or limb may be necessary depending on the location of the bite and the immediacy of treatment. 

Public agencies as well as members of the public should be well prepared for such an emergency. Preparation should involve both familiarization with the proper procedures for treating snakebite and, just as important, knowledge of what NOT to do. 

The following is a step-by-step description of how to properly treat someone bitten by a venomous snake beginning immediately after the bite. This information was taken from the following sources: the HerpMed website, the Food and Drug Administration, the American Red Cross and the Rocky Mountain Poison Control Center. 

SNAKEBITE EMERGENCY FIRST-AID INFORMATION

Human victims

  1. If the snake is still in the vicinity, move carefully away to a safe location. Find a place where the victim can lie flat and rest comfortably.
  2. Encourage the victim to remain calm and offer reassurance. Encourage others in the group and yourself to remain calm as well.
  3. If in a group, send one member to notify local emergency staff and the nearest hospital. DO NOT leave the victim alone in order to get help. Carry a cell phone with you while you recreate.
  4. Allow the bite to bleed freely for about 30 seconds.
  5. Cleanse and disinfect the bite area with Betadine (iodine). If unavailable or if the victim is allergic to iodine, use soap and water.
  6. If hospital treatment is more than 30 minutes away, and the bite is on a hand, finger, foot or lower arm or leg, an ACE, or other wide elastic bandage can be used as a pressure dressing. The bandage should be wrapped quickly from an area just above the bite past the knee or elbow joint, immobilizing it. Wrap no tighter than for a sprain. The goal is to restrict the movement of venom into the bloodstream without cutting off circulation to the affected limb. Check for pulse above and below bandage and rewrap if too tight.
  7. If available, apply a Sawyer Extractor to the bite until there is no more drainage. This device is often able to remove some venom from the wound and creates a negative pressure gradient that slows the spread of venom into the body. (This is a very beneficial device recommended by the Rocky Mountain Poison Control Center and experts in medical herpetology.)
  8. If an extractor is not available, apply direct pressure to the bite using a 4×4 gauze pad folded in half twice. Soak the pad in Betadine and tape it in place.
  9. Remove all rings, watches, jewelry and tight fitting clothing. The bite area and most of the bitten appendage will swell.
  10. Immobilize the bitten extremity as much as possible, using splints if necessary.
  11. Try to keep the bite location even with the heart. Raising it above the heart will increase the spread of venom into the body. Swelling will increase if kept below heart level.
  12. After administering first aid, take the victim to the nearest hospital or medical facility. Move slowly and deliberately, offer encouragement and avoid any unnecessary excitement or stress.
  13. If not done previously, get someone to call ahead to the nearest hospital so that it will be prepared for the victim’s arrival.

What NOT to do if bitten by a rattlesnake

  1. Do not assume that a bite is not serious or that treatment can be delayed.
  2. Do not leave the victim alone in order to get help.
  3. Do not apply oral (mouth) suction to the bite. Such action has the potential to introduce harmful bacteria into the wound that could cause sepsis. Also, venom will pass into the would-be-rescuers system through any cuts or sores in the mouth.
  4. Do not make any sort of incision into or around the bite marks. This will only increase trauma to the bite location and further agitate a victim who needs to remain as calm as possible.
  5. Do not apply a narrow, constrictive tourniquet such as a belt, shoelace or cord. Restricting blood flow in this manner puts the bitten extremity at a high risk for amputation.
  6. Do not engage in strenuous physical activity. This will only speed the spread of venom to vital organs.
  7. Do not apply ice, hot or cold packs to the bite. These have no proven beneficial effects and may compound tissue damage through burns or frostbite.
  8. Do not use a stun gun or electric shock treatment of any kind. Electric shock also has no proven beneficial effect and increases victim stress and trauma.
  9. Do not allow the victim to drink alcohol, take aspirin or use any medication.
  10. Do not give the victim anything to eat or drink unless approved by the attending physician.
  11. Do not remove pressure dressings until antivenom is available.
  12. Do not waste time or take any additional risks attempting to kill or capture the offending snake. The only wild venomous snakes in Colorado are rattlesnakes and treatment is the same for all three species (prairie rattlesnake, the Western rattlesnake that is also known as the midget-faded rattlesnake and the massasauga rattlesnake).

Canine victims (i.e. pet dogs) 

  1. Move a safe distance away from the snake and calm the dog.
  2. Clean the wound with soap and water and treat with antibiotic ointment if available.
  3. A Sawyer or other venom extractor should not be used because the dog’s hair will prevent a good seal from forming.
  4. Limit physical exertion and get the animal to veterinary care immediately, calling ahead if possible.
  5. Keeping your dog on a leash while out recreating and help to mitigate or prevent interactions your dog may have with a rattlesnake.

If a snake is encountered:

  1. Freeze in place. Snakes are often heard before they are seen. If you hear a rattlesnake, FREEZE in place until you or a companion can locate the animal. Attempting to move away from a snake you can’t see may lead you closer to it! Even if the snake is in plain view, freezing movement will reduce the threat you pose to the snake and help you calmly assess the situation.
  2. Seek to establish a safe distance. Rattlesnakes can strike to a distance of half their body length, and a good rule of thumb is to put at least five feet between yourself and the snake. If possible, move slowly back the way you came.
  3. Leave the snake alone. NEVER, under any circumstances, should you try and catch, kill, or provoke or move a rattlesnake. Fully one-third of people who suffer snakebites were bitten as a result of trying to handle or kill the snake. Move around the rattlesnake at a safe distance out of its way.

How can I avoid rattlesnakes? 

Understanding the biology and behavior of rattlesnakes can go a long way in reducing unwanted encounters. Rattlesnakes are basically creatures of habit and often bask, hunt, migrate and den in the same areas year after year. 

Action: Be prepared. Hikers in rattlesnake country should be knowledgeable and prepared in order to minimize the chances of a snake encounter, and also know what to do in the event a snake is encountered. 

Action: Snakebite protection. Sturdy leather boots should be the first line of defense. These afford good protection for the feet and ankles that are usually in the closest proximity to rattlesnakes. 

Action: Hike smart. Hikers should watch where they place feet and hands at all times, being careful to avoid stepping over rocks and logs or reaching into holes that could shelter a resting rattlesnake. Do not hike with headphones or ear buds in, be in aware of your surroundings.

Action: Limit evening activity. Extra caution is needed around dusk when the snakes become active and human visibility drops. Gathering firewood (if allowed), using the toilet, etc. should be done before dusk if possible. If late activity is unavoidable, use a light and be sure to wear boots, even in camp! 

Ecology and Behavior

Rattlesnakes are cryptic and use camouflage as their first line of defense.

Unlike many of their relatives, rattlesnakes are not built for speed. They are predators which lie in wait for their prey and may spend hours or even days in the same location waiting for a prey animal to pass by. Their large bodies are designed to help them conserve and store energy for what could be a very long wait for their next meal. This behavior can also aid in identification of the species. Most non-venomous snakes prefer to flee perceived danger and usually have the speed to do so. Rattlesnakes, because of how they are built, often have no choice but to stand their ground when threatened. 

Rattlesnakes are cryptic and use camouflage as their first line of defense. They would rather hide than interact with humans or other animals. Because of their coloration, most rattlesnakes blend in with their surroundings exceptionally well. In most cases, they will simply ignore you, thinking that you cannot see them. However, if the snake coils up and rattles, you are too close and should move away slowly. Stepping back just a few feet can be enough to convince the snake that you are not a threat. Most rattlesnakes will not strike at people unless they feel threatened or are deliberately provoked.

When are rattlesnakes active? 

Rattlesnakes have a fairly predictable pattern of activity. During the coldest months of the year they shelter in winter dens and usually resume activity in April or early May. Once active, adult snakes may migrate several kilometers from their dens in search of food. In the spring and fall, cool temperatures require the snakes to bask in the sun or on warm surfaces for much of the day. Pavement and other hard surfaces such as trails are often sought out for basking and many times this leads to negative encounters with people and automobiles. Hunting usually occurs in the late afternoon and evening once the snakes have become warm enough for such activity. When temperatures allow, rattlesnakes may also prowl for food in the early afternoon or at night.


Written by Jason Clay. Jason is a public information officer for the Colorado Parks and Wildlife northeast region.

One Response

  1. It pains me when I see incorrect information being given on how to properly address a venomous snakebite, particularly as it relates to elevation of the limb. The limb should be elevated well above the heart. What is outlined as the proper human protocol here is not entirely correct. Please be sure that you follow the Unified Treatment Algorithm for the Management of Pit Viper Snakebite in the United States which is the recommended treatment protocol used by physicians who regularly treat snakebites. Better yet, join National Snakebite Support on Facebook where you can educated on proper treatment.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Share:

✉ Follow for Updates

Sign up for email updates.

Never miss a post! Enter your email address and receive notifications of new posts by email.

More Posts